Connecticut poised to legalize marijuana

Connecticut is poised to become the 18th state to allow residents to use marijuana for recreational purposes after a measure cleared a critical hurdle in the state legislature late Wednesday night.

The state Senate is expected to ratify House amendments in a vote Thursday. The legislation passed the House on a nearly party-line vote; only one Republican voted in favor of legalization, while a dozen Democrats voted against.

Gov. Ned Lamont (D) is expected to sign the bill. He had threatened to veto an earlier version because it did not address equity in recovering from the decades-long war on drugs.

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Lamont’s office made clear he opposed a measure that would have allowed those with prior marijuana convictions to get preference when applying for licenses to grow or sell legal marijuana.

His chief of staff at the time said the provision would have applied that preference to both low-income and minority groups, for whom the preference was intended, and wealthier people who might have been cited once for possession.

The House removed that provision before passing the measure late Wednesday night. The bill now includes a preference for those who come from low-income communities defined by census tracts, a provision Lamont’s office negotiated with the legislature earlier this year.

“Marginalized communities have disproportionately suffered for decades because of the discriminatory enforcement of marijuana laws in Connecticut. This bill is a step toward addressing that shameful legacy and it will provide long-needed relief to communities that have historically experienced the collateral consequences of prohibition,” said Carly Wolf, state policies manager at the pro-marijuana legalization group NORML.

Republicans and Democrats who objected to the bill cited a recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study that showed an increase in the use of cannabis by minors in states where marijuana was made legal, and some worried about increases in crime and addiction.

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Once the bill becomes law, Connecticut residents will be allowed to purchase or possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana beginning July 1. The state would set up a regulatory framework and approve licenses to be ready to sell retail marijuana products by May 2022.

The bill will make Connecticut just the sixth state in which marijuana legalization passed through the legislature rather than via a ballot measure.

Several of those states that have legalized marijuana recently are Connecticut’s neighbors, a factor legislators mentioned as they debated legalization and considered how much tax revenue was fleeing across state lines. Massachusetts voters approved recreational marijuana in 2016, and voters in New Jersey and legislators in New York approved their own recreational schemes earlier this year.

Connecticut will become the fifth state this year to approve a recreational marijuana measure, after its two neighbors and New Mexico and Virginia. Marijuana advocates hope the expanded number of states that allow legal pot will put pressure on Congress to follow suit.

“This year has shown us that state legislatures are capable of rising to the challenge to end cannabis prohibition. A supermajority of Americans have made it clear that they favor a system of legalization and regulation rather than the status quo,” said Karen O’Keefe, who manages state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project.

Polls show a substantial majority of Americans believe that marijuana should be legal. A Pew Research Center survey in April found 60 percent of U.S. adults say marijuana should be permissible for recreational purposes, and another 31 percent said pot should be allowed for medical purposes only. Just 8 percent said marijuana should not be legal at all.

A Quinnipiac University poll, also conducted in April, found almost 7 in 10 voters think marijuana should be made legal. That figure is a stark increase from 2012, when Quinnipiac first asked about legalizing marijuana; back then, just 51 percent of registered voters said pot should be legal.